With A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, Roy Andersson brings his “human being” trilogy, which began in 2000 with Songs from the Second Floor and continued with You, the Living in 2007, to a close. Critics who felt that the Swedish writer/director had already begun to repeat himself with the second film may find this third one even more enervating, but there are pleasures here that match those of the first two, even if the format feels somewhat tired.

Pigeon operates under the same rigid formal constraints as its predecessors. It consists of a series of deadpan, tragicomic vignettes, each captured by a stationary camera set-up. The film begins with a pale-faced man gazing at taxidermy birds in a natural history museum, an apt metaphor for the experience of watching a Roy Andersson film. The barrooms, offices and sad, tiny apartments in which the film is set look, when filmed this way, like dioramas. This creates a distance from the characters that often makes them feel like zoo animals under observation. Andersson is a master of defamiliarizing the banal, and the approach he’s developed is a terrific vehicle for his wry observations on the absurdity of the human condition.

In theory, a film with no camera movement could be quite dull visually, but Andersson designs and conceives his shots with an eye toward perspective and depth of field, filling the frame with more information than can be taken in in a single viewing. So much of the pleasure in his films comes from the meticulous placement of bodies in door-frames, actions glimpsed through windows and the surprising spatial relationships between seemingly disconnected scenes.

Indeed, the film works best when the individual segments feel knitted together, as when the sound of a tap-dance class carries over into the background of another scene, or when two lovers from one scene are seen breaking up in a restaurant soon after. The question with Andersson’s films is always whether the pieces add up to a cohesive whole. Pigeon, more than the other two films, has something like an arc built into it, provided by two down-on-their-luck salesmen who pop up every ten minutes or so. The two men are hawking novelty items—including large vampire teeth, a bag of laughter, and a horrifying rubber mask they call Uncle One Tooth—all in the name of “helping people have fun.” But both men utterly lack the gift of salesmanship, let alone the joviality required to advertise such items, and their stolid, simple sales pitch becomes a running gag. The relationship between these two characters turns out to be the most moving and well-developed of any in Andersson’s oeuvre. It’s not enough to qualify as a plot, but nobody familiar with Andersson would expect one.

Yet the film is also full of striking set-pieces that stand alone on their own merits, especially those that dip into surrealism. At one point, the army of 17th-Century King Charles XII inexplicably shows up and marches endlessly across the frame, while their leader reposes in a bar with a glass of mineral water. There’s also an amusing flashback that’s presented as a musical number. But while Andersson is always performing a tonal balancing act, some of these episodes are too disturbing to be funny, and stand out awkwardly as a result. Near the end of the film Andersson delivers two of his most upsetting sequences, and they feel out of place in a film that normally buoys its despair with whimsy.

It would be silly to want a filmmaker as distinctive as Andersson to change—imagine asking the same of Wes Anderson, or Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani. But while a director’s style is often intrinsic, form is not. Andersson could have learned something from Richard Linklater’s films with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy; in the final installment of his “Before” trilogy, Before Midnight, Linklater maintains the elements that made the first two films work so well, but by adding new characters and removing the constraint of time, tweaks the formula enough so that it doesn’t feel stale.

Andersson’s Songs from the Second Floor has the distinction of being the first film in the trilogy, and its apocalyptic setting sets it apart. Pigeon, though it offers many of the delights we’ve come to expect from Andersson, ultimately feels like little more than an alternate version of You, the Living. There are worse films to rehash.

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